Friday March 31, 2017
Tags for: The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents African Master Carvers: Known and Famous
  • Press Release

The Cleveland Museum of Art Presents African Master Carvers: Known and Famous

exterior of the CMA building

Focus exhibition addresses the misconception that all tradition-based African art is anonymous

Cleveland, OH (March 31, 2017)African Master Carvers: Known and Famous showcases the achievements of thirteen exceptional sculptors from sub-Saharan Africa, nine of whom are known by name. Fifteen examples by artists working in West, Central and Southern Africa are accompanied by the artists’ biographies and, when available, portrait photographs. African Master Carvers: Known and Famous is on view in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery now through July 16, 2017.     

“This exhibition celebrates the creative talents of several individuals who have contributed to the incredible stylistic diversity of the arts of Africa,” said Constantine Petridis, former curator of African art at the Cleveland Museum of Art. “Signature works by some of the most famous tradition-based carvers from sub-Saharan Africa call into question the presumed anonymity of African art.”

Historical works of African art in European and American museums and private collections are generally ascribed to unknown or unidentified artists, or more broadly to cultures or peoples. This has much to do with the fact that when such objects were first acquired and exhibited they were considered ethnographic specimens or crafts, rather than fine art. Early scholars of African art devoted cursory research into the lives of the artists they met during fieldwork in the 1930s; sustained interest in artists’ identities did not begin in earnest until the 1950s and ’60s. 

In order to identify the hand of a particular sculptor, scholars analyze an artwork’s stylistic features, studying and comparing the way that anatomical details such as eyes and ears are rendered. Sometimes, even though an artist’s name may remain elusive, a group of works bear such striking stylistic similarities that they are attributed to a master with a nickname, sometimes referencing the location where the alleged master was believed to have been active, or alluding to a characteristic formal feature of that master’s works. The Baboon Master was a name coined for the artist of the Tsonga or Zulu culture of South Africa or Mozambique who made Cleveland’s magnificent staff. This anonymous carver produced a body of work featuring baboon iconography. 

Through a diverse selection of works carved in wood and ivory by artists of various sub-Saharan cultures, African Master Carvers: Known and Famous illustrates the wide-ranging individuality of the artistic legacy of the African continent. Three of the best-known master carvers presented in the exhibition were members of the Yoruba culture in Nigeria. One of the most prominent historical Yoruba artists is a man called Bamgboye (1893–1978), who lived in the Ekiti region in northeastern Yorubaland. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s monumental helmet mask, formerly in the collection of American actor Vincent Price, is generally considered to be among Bamgboye’s most virtuosic and exuberant realizations of the Epa mask genre. His contemporary Agbonbiofe (died 1945) was the leading exponent of the Adesina family in the same Ekiti region. He exhibited a radically different style in works that are admired for their self-contained, quiet mood. 

Highlights in African Master Carvers: Known and Famous


Helmet mask (Epa Orangun), presumably c. 1920. Carved by the Yoruba artist Bamgboye (1893–1978). Nigeria, Ekiti region, Odo-Owa village. Wood, pigment; h. 137.2 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund and Gift of Mary Grant Price, 1991.165.

Carved from a single block of wood and weighing about 50 pounds, this stunning example of Bamgboye’s complex style was carved when the artist was in his late twenties while living in Omu in his native Ilorin Province. 

Epa masks were performed during an annual or biannual week-long festival. They specifically appeared at the festival’s climactic conclusion. This mask’s elaborate superstructure revolves around the figure of a richly adorned ruler on horseback carrying a sword and wearing protective amulets on his arms. Three tiers of surrounding small-scale attendants—including messengers, musicians, warriors and praise singers—represent a scene of court life in miniature, and testify to the warrior-king’s power and prestige.


Male figure, c. 1870–1910. Carved by the Bangwa artist Ateu Atsa (1840–1910). Cameroon, chiefdom of Fontem. Wood, pigment; h. 92.1 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1987.62.

Adorned with royal attire consisting of a cap, beaded necklace, folded loincloth and drinking horn, this figure was carved as a commemorative portrait of a historical king or high dignitary. It was kept by a secret association called Lefem, whose members gathered weekly in a sacred space in the forest to discuss matters related to the welfare of the kingdom. Standing in a royal shrine, the figure witnessed sacrifices made to the skulls of the chief’s ancestors. Meant to safeguard the kingdom and protect the fecundity of its inhabitants, it was also exhibited during funerals and royal ceremonies.


Forehead mask (Munyangi or Kindjinga), before 1958. Carved by the (Eastern) Pende artist Kiyova (dates unknown). Democratic Republic of the Congo, Luaya-Ndambo village. Wood, pigment, fabric, fiber, ram’s hair; h. 20 cm. Private collection. Photo: © Christie’s.

While leaping, running, twisting and turning, the dancer wearing this mask would have mimicked the agility of the great blue turaco. A crest of this bird’s tail feathers would have originally been attached to the mask’s woven headpiece. Rather than worn directly in front of the face, the sculpture sloped down off the forehead. The mask left the dancer’s sight line and respiration largely clear, merely disguising his face by the beard of ram’s hair, thus providing him the freedom needed to perform his energetic dance.


Plank mask (Nwantantey), c. 1980. Carved by the Bwa artist Yacouba Bondé (born 1963). Burkina Faso, Boni village. Wood, pigment, fiber; h. 193 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Sundry Art-Education Fund, 2012.24.

Wooden masks of this general style only occur in the southern Bwa region, specifically in the villages of Boni, Dossi, Bagassi and Pa. Such masks are traditionally used in initiations, funerals, market-day performances, annual renewal rites and other celebratory occasions. Great vertical plank masks like this one embody flying spirits from the wilderness that offer protection to the families who own them. The hook shape protruding from the face represents the beak of a hornbill and the crescent shape at the top, the moon. The Cleveland Museum of Art purchased this mask directly from Yacouba Bondé when he was in residence in Cleveland for Parade the Circle in 2010. 




Staff (induku), presumably around 1900. Carved by an unidentified Tsonga or Zulu artist nicknamed the Baboon Master. South Africa or Mozambique. Wood; h. 120.7 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund, 2010.204.

Arguably the finest surviving carving of the Baboon Master in a Western collection, this staff features exceptionally sophisticated articulation and detailing. The circular pokerwork motif on one side—which echoes the treatment of the ears on the male heads supporting the baboon—may represent a shield or a leaf. The heads feature the characteristic ornament that signifies maturity and marriage; covered with a mixture of gum, charcoal and oil, this hairdo, called isicoco, employed a fiber or sinew ring into which the wearer’s hair was woven.


Art and Fiction Book Club: African Master Carvers

Two Wednesdays, May 10 and 17, 1:30–2:30 p.m., Classroom E 

The Art and Fiction Book Club connects the written word to works of art on view in special exhibitions and the permanent collection galleries. Books are selected to highlight a variety of historical periods, artistic movements and points of view, with the aim of challenging, intriguing and inspiring readers to explore wide-ranging styles, genres and formats of both art and fiction. Each two-week session includes a gallery tour highlighting objects relevant to the reading selection, and a discussion led by museum educators that includes a short lecture covering broad historical context and conversation with other attendees about the book and related artworks. 

In May, discuss questions of attribution and authorship with an exploration of African Master Carvers: Known and Famous and a reading of Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. 

$35 per session, CMA members $30 per session. Register online at or by phone at 216-421-7350. Participants purchase book on their own; limited quantities available for purchase in the museum store.

A Passionate Eye: The Adventure of Collecting Art 

Wednesday, June 7, 7:00 p.m., Recital Hall

Inspirational speaker and author Victoria Price was fortunate to grow up surrounded by art, both in her own home and in those of her parents’ friends. As dedicated art collectors and advocates, her parents and their circle infused Victoria not only with a passion for the visual arts—resulting in her own career as an art historian, consultant and designer—but also an immense appreciation for the role of the art collector in our society. 

Victoria’s father, acclaimed actor Vincent Price, began collecting art when he bought a Rembrandt etching at age 12 using his allowance. Victoria will share stories from the life of her father as well as those of his circle, including Edward G. Robinson, Stanley Marcus, Fanny Brice and more. She will speak about the vital role of the art collector as tastemaker, guardian and perpetuator of the visual arts for future generations, and museum advocates. But perhaps even more importantly, she will also remind us that collecting art can be one of life’s greatest adventures.

Free; tickets required. Register online at or by calling the ticket center at 216-421-7350. 

Contact the Museum's Media Relations Team:
(216) 707-2261